Seth Godin, best-selling author and all-around successful business guru, recently posted a column called "Where Have All the Agents Gone?" In it, basically, he talks about how "middlemen" such as stock brokers, real estate agents and travel agents are either dying or dead. Then he wonders if literary agents are next.
The point he's trying to make is that literary agents act as "middlemen," too, and therefore, may be endangered and out of the picture in the future. But the column doesn't really give any good thoughts or observations as to why this will be. And I wanted to throw some thoughts in on this discussion because I disagree with his basic idea, and my adrenaline is still going too much from watching college basketball to fall asleep.
First of all, unless I'm really missing something here, the number of literary agents in the country is going up (whereas the number of travel agents is going down). Not in drastic, eye-popping numbers, but more literary agents are in the field than three years ago. Why is this? You already know the answer - it's because editors are too busy to act as gatekeepers and need someone to ween out all the poor work that's submitted.
Key point: Someone in the literary world has to act as a judge and gatekeeper (although people hate those words). Some group of professionals - agents - must take responsibility and look at the monstrous pile of manuscripts written each year and say, "This three percent has the potential to move on and be considered, but this ninety-seven does not because it's bad or been done before." Someone must review all 100% and create a big pile and a small pile. Who's gonna do it? Writers? Can they look at their own work and say, "This is unsatisfactory. It won't be published. I shouldn't submit it." Hell no. Never in a million years. Editors? They used to do a lot of this and still do a little. But they're too busy to sift through the slush and find the rare gems. They're busy being fired and those that aren't are churning out books like mad, hoping to God they sell. Someone has to do it, and that's why we have literary agents.
They aren't going anywhere. As the years go by, more and more people are trying to sell their work, and more and more editors are not looking at unsolicited submissions - meaning they will only consider work submitted from literary agents (usually with whom they have a current relationship). Add those two simple things up, and you see not only the need for literary agents, but a reason why new ones keep popping up.
Consider this paragraph from Godin's column:
"To thrive in a world of self-service,
agents have to hyperspecialize, have
to stand for something, have to have
the guts to say no far more than they
say yes. No, you can't publish this book.
No I won't represent you. No, don't take
that flight. No, I won't sell this house,
it's overpriced, list it yourself."
Am I missing something here? This is exactly what literary agents do. They say no 97% of the time. They all specialize. (Yes, they could probably stand to specialize even further, but it will all be OK). Literary agents differ from real estate agents and stock brokers and travel agents because of their ability (the necessity) to say just that: NO. They have the power of no, and that's why it's foolish to compare all these groups to lit reps. Literary agents won't work with just anybody. In fact, it's closer to the opposite.
They are like real estate agents in that they will help you secure a better deal, act as your representative, and explain the fine print regarding contracts. Both perform these functions. And yes, in a perfect world, you could go around an agent and sell something yourself to avoid the commission charge (a literary agent takes 15% of what you make). But in the publishing world, unless you're aiming low, you have to have an agent, or else no one will even listen to you. Agents act as needed middlemen. They see a busy, coffee-guzzling editor on one side of the table, and a reclusive prima donna writer on the other end. Someone needs to be part of the equation who listens to both sides and tries to figure out an acceptable deal.
To continue on the subject of money, let's examine why middlemen are disappearing. Real estate agents take their cut of the deal - six percent or whatever. Some relatives of mine are trying to sell their house and they aren't excited at all about that big chunk they'll lose with an agent. They want to keep the cash. On the other hand, have you ever met an writer who is really upset at the 15% they will lose by having an agent? The publisher doesn't care whether an agent is involved. They pay the same amount no matter if you have no agent or six of them. Sure, we writers would like 15% more, but ultimately a lot of us are so excited to see our work in print that we just shrug and thank God the number is just 15 and not more.
Consider this paragraph by Godin:
"... anonymous agents are interchangeable
and virtually worthless. Agents that don't
do anything but help one side find the other
side in a human approximation of Google
aren't so helpful any more."
Well, yes, but that doesn't mean anything. We all know that an agent without relationships with editors is worthless. If they don't have editors who pick up the phone when they call, then they're no better than you or I as joe schmo writers. To avoid getting a bad/ineffective agent, simply take two steps: 1) protect yourself by not paying any upfront fees; 2) ask a lot of questions before signing any contracts - such as questions regarding the contract language itself, and whether the agent has sold any books recently, and to whom, and why they want to sign you as a client. If the agent has sales, then they have relationships and are not anonymous and worthless.
Now: Does Godin have a point? Will agents disappear down the road? First of all - who knows. But if I had to guess, I would say it has to do with self-publishing. In the next 10-20 years, we will see drastic shifts toward self-publishing your work - especially if bookstores go the way of the dodo. If more writers are self-publishing their poor manuscripts rather than submitting them all over Hell's half acres, then the slush pile goes down, and the need for a gatekeeper is lessened, and perhaps editors can handle the workload again. Then he may have a point down the road.
My final thought: No, I don't think agents are going anywhere and I don't get Godin's column, though, admittedly, the man is a genius and I am not.